Wanted: Honest Advice in the Marketplace

ON a stretch of Queen Street West where chic bistros and Cajun restaurants rub elbows with antiques shops and avant-garde clothing stores, a science-fiction bookstore named Bakka offers its customers an unusual service: mini-reviews of selected books, written by store personnel. Handwritten on small cards and initialed by the reviewers, the comments range from cheers to merely passing grades, like the distribution curve in an English composition class. Tacked to the shelf under Terry Pratchett's ``Mort,'' for instance, is this mostly thumbs-up review: ``Pratchett writes books that just cry out to be read aloud to friends. Not as tremendous as `Equal Rites,' but still very, very funny. Trust me.''

Another in-house critic dances a jig over ``Deserted Cities,'' by Lewis Shiver: ``Hey! Buy this book! Shiver's novel is one of the very best of '88. Great plotting coupled with exceptional style make this a real treat to read. (OK, turn the volume down now.)''

Opinions about ``Lord of Cragsclaw,'' by Bill Fawcett, are less positive: ``Complex and multi-layered `save-the-kingdom-from-invaders-within-and-without' story. Not bad and done without easy answers, but they could've used humans.'' And writing about David Skall's ``Antibodies,'' a reviewer comments, ``Short stories, but related (loosely). Good idea, and well-written, but odd, disturbing, interesting.''

Other books receive harsher treatment. A single-sentence review of ``Not for Glory,'' by Joel Rosenberg, reads, ``Surprisingly sexist and definately [sic] not one of Rosenberg's best.''

Never mind that creative spelling of ``definitely.'' To any bookstore patron who has ever longed for on-the-spot relief from all the overheated superlatives and multiple exclamation points that constitute dust-jacket hype (``Quite possibly the most important book of our time!'' ``Her most magnificent novel!''), Bakka's blend of honesty and irreverence is a wonder - the very stuff of sci-fi dreams.

It is also the stuff of good business. According to one Bakka clerk-reviewer, the store's six-year practice of offering critiques like these has brought enthusiastic reviews from customers. Sci-fi fans soon discover which reviewers' literary tastes match their own, and they keep coming back for more recommendations.

This kind of candor on the part of salespeople of any sort is rare in this age of push-to-shove merchandising. The critic-clerks at Bakka are the moral equivalent of a produce manager who tells a shopper when a particular crop of vegetables may be less than a Best Buy this week.

Such straight talk in a bookstore is hardly less remarkable than finding a clothing store clerk who will risk a commission by saying to a woman customer, ``I don't think that's quite you, dear,'' rather than plying the standard line: ``It's stunning.''

Yet these are the heroes and heroines of retail selling - the waiter or waitress who nudges you from the swordfish to the less-pricey flounder simply because it's the better catch that day. Add an extra 5 percent to that tip. And honk your horn if you have encountered an automobile salesperson who recommends a less expensive model because it suits your needs rather than the dealer's bottom line.

In a world of eroding trust, with dark and doubtful headlines about ethics, what could be more reassuring than to read the Bakka pan of a blockbuster bestseller? Not long ago a critic-clerk wished to warn customers as urgently as possible against the Stephen King book, ``It.'' The mini-review read simply:

``Use this to insulate your cottage.''

Even that brutal degree of honesty proved to be the best policy. At the moment the store is sold out of the book, and Bakka's staff is waiting impatiently for the reorder to arrive.

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